Hagel Heads Home After Disappointing Trip Afghanistan

Ramstein Air Base, Germany — On his way home from Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had planned to stop yesterday at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the U.S.-run hospital in Germany where thousands of American soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated over the past decade.

But the visit was canceled when Hagel’s staff learned no Americans were being treated for combat wounds there now, a military official said. Only three U.S. military personnel have been killed in combat since January, and about 60 have been wounded.

It was a rare bit of good news for Hagel after a disappointing first overseas trip as Pentagon chief. Even that boost quickly faded when an Afghan police officer killed two U.S. troops yesterday, the third insider attack this year.

Overall, Hagel’s three-day visit to Afghanistan was marred by a suicide bombing and security threats in the heart of Kabul, a canceled press conference that had been expected to highlight progress in the war, and accusations by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the U.S. military was secretly colluding with the Taliban to prolong the U.S. troop presence in his country.

Hagel returns to an inbox full of trouble in Washington. First on the list: how to absorb $47 billion in defense budget cuts mandated by Congress this year, with more trims to come. His predecessor, Leon E. Panetta, warned that the cuts would devastate U.S. military readiness.

Hagel has seemed low-key and at times unsure of himself since he won a Senate confirmation battle on Feb. 27. His reaction to his early burdens is tough to gauge, but he has yet to show the sparks that earned him maverick status when he was a Republican senator from Nebraska who took controversial positions and issued blunt assessments, no matter the consequences.

Aides say Hagel is still acclimating himself to a daunting job that some of his predecessors seemed to quickly master. He heads the Pentagon during an unpopular war, gets scrutinized for every public utterance, faces constant demands for decisions, and must meet a grinding schedule of briefings, meetings and public events.

Hagel has not signaled if he will push to keep a sizable U.S. force in Afghanistan after the end of 2014, as many military commanders hope.

Perhaps his biggest challenge is figuring out how to lead a vast organization at a time of retrenchment. With mandated budget cuts, and the ending of expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon is facing a period of sustained austerity after a decade of ballooning budgets and constant deployments.

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Few defense secretaries have come to the job with a more compelling background. Hagel enlisted in the Army and fought in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, where he was wounded twice as an infantry squad leader in the Mekong Delta. He and his younger brother, Tom, who served in the squad, saved each other’s lives on separate occasions. He is the first defense secretary who remained an enlisted soldier for his military career.

Hagel’s rice paddy view in a losing war convinced him to be wary about sending Americans to fight in foreign wars, he has said. Aides say it also left him with an easy comaraderie with enlisted soldiers that eluded many of his forerunners who never saw combat.

But at Forward Operating Base Fenty, a U.S. base in eastern Afghanistan that Hagel visited on Saturday, he mentioned Vietnam only in passing. He seemed uncomfortable talking about his his service in a long-ago war to young soldiers now on the front lines.

“It is true I was in the United States Army in 1968 in Vietnam. I was with the 9th Infantry Division,” he told more than 100 soldiers, saying nothing more of his wartime experience. The 9th Division no longer exists.

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Hagel stayed active in national security debates after he left the Senate in 2009, serving on President Barack Obama’s intelligence oversight board and joining a Washington research group.

But he was far less prominent than Panetta, who had been CIA director and presided over the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Panetta, a back-slapping pol who enjoyed salty language, seemed to quickly master the Pentagon’s culture.

Robert M. Gates, Obama’s first defense secretary, also had headed the CIA. He later served on the Iraq Study Group, a panel created by Congress to study the Iraq war, giving him a detailed grasp of the conflict’s complexities when he arrived at the Pentagon

Hagel had not served at a senior role in the executive branch since he was deputy director of the Veterans Administration three decades ago. As a senator, he could expound on the flaws he saw in Iraq and Afghanistan without having direct responsibility for how the Pentagon was run.

Now he does.